BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Martha Lang steers her golf cart behind Shoal Creek’s sixth tee, stopping to admire the beauty in the valley that sprawls so lushly beneath Double Oak Mountain.
She is a member of the USGA’s executive committee, and she’s also a member at Shoal Creek and its board of governors.
For almost 30 years, she has relished the serenity she feels here.
“I’m so fond of this place,” Lang says.
Emma Talley feels the same way. She’s the 2013 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, the 2015 NCAA individual national champion and a Shoal Creek member. She’s also one of 156 players who will tee it up here this week at the U.S. Women’s Open.
“This is an amazing place,” says Talley, a University of Alabama graduate. “It’s kind of out in the middle of nowhere. When I’m practicing around sunset, it’s so peaceful, so beautiful. It’s like heaven on earth.”
That’s the Shoal Creek that Birmingham and the USGA want the world to enjoy, the Deep South’s redeemed and reimagined championship test.
The controversy the club’s founder ignited as host of a major championship almost three decades ago, however, will never completely fade from golf history. The discriminatory practices that once existed here are seared into the sport’s memory.
While the game shouldn’t forget that, the Shoal Creek story’s postscript is important, too. What happened at Shoal Creek changed the nature of the game.
It changed Shoal Creek.
“What happened in the past will be brought up, I’m sure,” Lang said. “But we’re moving beyond that history. We’ve gone so hard at trying to make things right.”
The way major championships are awarded changed because of Shoal Creek.
The sport became more inclusive because of Shoal Creek.
This isn’t the same place club founder Hall Thompson said wouldn’t be pressured into accepting African-American members before the 1990 PGA Championship.
It’s a different place, reinvigorated in its atonement as an invitation-only private club.
“Shoal Creek is extremely inclusive,” said U.S. Women’s Open general chairman Matthew Dent, a member of Shoal Creek’s board of governors. “It’s reflective in our membership. It’s reflective in our board. It’s reflective in all we do here. I couldn’t be more proud of the club and who we are today. I couldn’t be more proud of the world getting to see who we are at Shoal Creek and in Birmingham.”
The club averted calamity back in 1990, with advertisers pulling their support of the PGA Championship and with civil rights groups threatening to protest. The club saved the championship by inviting insurance executive Louis J. Willie to become Shoal Creek’s first African-American member.
The controversy forced American golf governing bodies to confront one of the game’s ugly traditions.
In the wake of the controversy, the USGA, the PGA Tour and the PGA of America adopted rules requiring clubs to prove they didn’t have discriminatory admission practices before they could host one of their public golf events.
The U.S. Women’s Open host site agreement in place this week states that Shoal Creek “demonstrated open membership policies and practices prohibiting discrimination of any kind whatsoever, including without limitation, on the basis of race, creed, national origin or gender and it has had and shall continue through the end of the championship to have women and minorities with voting membership privileges and rights.”
Shoal Creek hosted the 1984 PGA Championship and the ’86 U.S. Amateur, but it took 18 years for the club to work its way back into any kind of big-event rotation after the controversy. The USGA embraced this reimagined venue and the course Jack Nicklaus designed when it decided to bring its U.S. Junior Championship to the club in 2008. So did the PGA Tour, when it seriously considered bringing the Tour Championship here, before deciding to move it to Atlanta, and then later moving the Regions Tradition here. Shoal Creek hosted the PGA Tour Champions major from 2011-15. The club passed all the Tour’s anti-discriminatory requirements as host.
Shoal Creek’s history continues to be rewritten with women about to take the course in force this week.
“I hate to even talk about the past here, just because I wasn’t part of it,” said John Hudson III, a Shoal Creek member. “I’m sure people remember that, but all I know is that it’s a wonderful club.”
Hudson is a senior vice president of marketing and business development for Alabama Power, an electric utility company headquartered in Birmingham. He’s on Shoal Creek’s U.S. Women’s Open executive committee. And he’s also African-American.
“I joined the club because I love golf, and I love how great this golf course is and how great the members are,” Hudson said. “It’s a very good place for me and my family.”
How diverse is today’s membership? The exact numbers are hard to come by. Mike Thompson, the son of the founder and the club’s president today, responded to an interview request by email.
“Shoal Creek is very proud of our membership ... (but) does not disclose our membership categories or roster,” Thompson wrote.
Shoal Creek’s history is a topic Thompson has talked about in media interviews numerous times over the years, with he and club members eager to distance themselves from the shadow of that controversy.
“Absolutely, we’re a different club,” Mike Thompson told the Birmingham News in 2011, with the Regions Tradition being played at Shoal Creek for the first time. The newspaper reported back then that the club had 600 members, six of them African-American.
Former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice joined Shoal Creek in 2009. Hudson joined in 2010.
“I still don’t know all the members yet, but two of my closest friends, who happen to be African-American, are members of Shoal Creek as well,” said Hudson. “It’s a very inviting place. That’s my experience.”
Hall Thompson died in 2010, but not before seeing efforts to change the culture realized. He was there to congratulate Tiger Woods after Woods won the Jerry Pate Invitational collegiate event at Shoal Creek in 1994. He was there to see the U.S. Junior Amateur in ’08.
“Someday, I do hope and pray that 1990 will become a non-story,” Thompson told the Birmingham News on the 10-year anniversary of the controversy.
How many female members does Shoal Creek’s roster include? Apparently, there’s no shortage. Lang is on the club’s board of governors.
“The U.S. Women’s Open may be the most important championship we have ever hosted,” Dent said. “Women are a huge component of who we are today.”
Activist groups won’t be demonstrating outside Shoal Creek’s front gates during this year’s U.S. Women’s Open, the way they did at Trump National Bedminster last year, when women’s groups protested the USGA playing an event on a Trump-owned course.
Jamelle Shaw is a Shoal Creek member, a businesswoman who runs Classic Traditions, an event merchandise company. She’s a 12 handicap.
“I feel 100 percent comfortable here,” Shaw said. “There’s no, 'You’re a woman, you can’t do this.’ Women can play anytime at Shoal Creek. The club’s very accommodating, very encouraging of women participating.”
Lang seconded that.
“We’ve had women as members from the very beginning,” Lang said. “That’s never been an issue.”
Talley was brought into the club as a “Tour Hopeful” member, an effort the club makes to support promising young players. Club members also support the Ladies Birmingham Golf Association’s Lady Legacy Scholarship program, for high school senior girl golfers.
Lang is eager to see the focus at Shoal Creek this week become how the best women players in the world navigate the course’s new restoration. Jack Nicklaus originally designed the course, which opened in 1977 as his first solo design. He completed a restoration of the course early last year.
“There’s so much strategy on so many of these holes,” Lang said. “It’s a great member’s course to play every day, but it was built so it could be ramped up as a great championship course, too.”
That’s what Lang and other club members are eager to see this week for the world’s best women.